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On The Ridiculous Titles Assumed By Italian Academies
by [?]

The Italians are a fanciful people, who have often mixed a grain or two of pleasantry and even of folly with their wisdom. This fanciful character betrays itself in their architecture, in their poetry, in their extemporary comedy, and their Improvisatori; but an instance not yet accounted for of this national levity, appears in those denominations of exquisite absurdity given by themselves to their Academies! I have in vain inquired for any assignable reason why the most ingenious men, and grave and illustrious personages, cardinals, and princes, as well as poets, scholars, and artists, in every literary city, should voluntarily choose to burlesque themselves and their serious occupations, by affecting mysterious or ludicrous titles, as if it were carnival-time, and they had to support masquerade characters, and accepting such titles as we find in the cant style of our own vulgar clubs, the Society of “Odd Fellows,” and of “Eccentrics!” A principle so whimsical but systematic must surely have originated in some circumstance not hitherto detected.

A literary friend, recently in an Italian city exhausted by the sirocco, entered a house whose open door and circular seats appeared to offer to passengers a refreshing sorbetto; he discovered, however, that he had got into “the Academy of the Cameleons,” where they met to delight their brothers, and any “spirito gentil” they could nail to a recitation. An invitation to join the academicians alarmed him, for with some impatient prejudice against these little creatures, vocal with prose e rime, and usually with odes and sonnets begged for, or purloined for the occasion, he waived all further curiosity and courtesy, and has returned home without any information how these “Cameleons” looked, when changing their colours in an “accademia.”

Such literary institutions, prevalent in Italy, are the spurious remains of those numerous academies which simultaneously started up in that country about the sixteenth century. They assumed the most ridiculous denominations, and a great number is registered by Quadrio and Tiraboschi. Whatever was their design, one cannot fairly reproach them, as Mencken, in his “Charlatanaria Eruditorum,” seems to have thought, for pompous quackery; neither can we attribute to their modesty their choice of senseless titles, for to have degraded their own exalted pursuits was but folly! Literary history affords no parallel to this national absurdity of the refined Italians. Who could have suspected that the most eminent scholars, and men of genius, were associates of the Oziosi, the Fantastici, the Insensati? Why should Genoa boast of her “Sleepy,” Yiterbo of her “Obstinates,” Sienna of her “Insipids,” her “Blockheads,” and her “Thunderstruck;” and Naples of her “Furiosi:” while Macerata exults in her “Madmen chained?” Both Quadrio and Tiraboschi cannot deny that these fantastical titles have occasioned these Italian academies to appear very ridiculous to the oltramontani; but these valuable historians are no philosophical thinkers. They apologise for this bad taste, by describing the ardour which was kindled throughout Italy at the restoration of letters and the fine arts, so that every one, and even every man of genius, were eager to enrol their names in these academies, and prided themselves in bearing their emblems, that is, the distinctive arms each academy had chosen. But why did they mystify themselves?

Folly, once become national, is a vigorous plant, which sheds abundant seed. The consequence of having adopted ridiculous titles for these academies suggested to them many other characteristic fopperies. At Florence every brother of the “Umidi” assumed the name of something aquatic, or any quality pertaining to humidity. One was called “the Frozen,” another “the Damp;” one was “the Pike,” another “the Swan:” and Grazzini, the celebrated novelist, is known better by the cognomen of La Lasca, “the Roach,” by which he whimsically designates himself among the “Humids.” I find among the Insensati, one man of learning taking the name of STORDIDO Insensato, another TENEBROSO Insensato. The famous Florentine academy of La Crusca, amidst their grave labours to sift and purify their language, threw themselves headlong into this vortex of folly. Their title, the academy of “Bran,” was a conceit to indicate their art of sifting; but it required an Italian prodigality of conceit to have induced these grave scholars to exhibit themselves in the burlesque scenery of a pantomimical academy, for their furniture consists of a mill and a bakehouse; a pulpit for the orator is a hopper, while the learned director sits on a mill-stone; the other seats have the forms of a miller’s dossers, or great panniers, and the backs consist of the long shovels used in ovens. The table is a baker’s kneading-trough, and the academician who reads has half his body thrust out of a great bolting sack, with I know not what else for their inkstands and portfolios. But the most celebrated of these academies is that “degli Arcadi,” at Rome, who are still carrying on their pretensions much higher. Whoever aspires to be aggregated to these Arcadian shepherds receives a personal name and a title, but not the deeds, of a farm, picked out of a map of the ancient Arcadia or its environs; for Arcadia itself soon became too small a possession for these partitioners of moon-shine. Their laws, modelled by the twelve tables of the ancient Romans; their language in the venerable majesty of their renowned ancestors; and this erudite democracy dating by the Grecian Olympiads, which Crescembini, their first custode, or guardian, most painfully adjusted to the vulgar era, were designed that the sacred erudition of antiquity might for ever be present among these shepherds.[1] Goldoni, in his Memoirs, has given an amusing account of these honours. He says “He was presented with two diplomas; the one was my charter of aggregation to the Arcadi of Rome, under the name of Polisseno, the other gave me the investiture of the Phlegraean fields. I was on this saluted by the whole assembly in chorus, under the name of Polisseno Phlegraeio, and embraced by them as a fellow-shepherd and brother. The Arcadians are very rich, as you may perceive, my dear reader: we possess estates in Greece; we water them with our labours for the sake of reaping laurels, and the Turks sow them with grain, and plant them with vines, and laugh at both our titles and our songs.” When Fontenelle became an Arcadian, they baptized the new Pastor by their graceful diminutive–Fontanella–allusive to the charm, of his style; and further they magnificently presented him with the entire Isle of Delos! The late Joseph Walker, an enthusiast for Italian literature, dedicated his “Memoir on Italian Tragedy” to the Countess Spencer; not inscribing it with his Christian but his heathen name, and the title of his Arcadian estate, Eubante Tirinzio! Plain Joseph Walker, in his masquerade dress, with his Arcadian signet of Pan’s reeds dangling in his title-page, was performing a character to which, however well adapted, not being understood, he got stared at for his affectation! We have lately heard of some licentious revellings of these Arcadians, in receiving a man of genius from our own country, who, himself composing Italian Rime, had “conceit” enough to become a shepherd![2] Yet let us inquire before we criticise.